Philadelphia: Guide to the City

Philly! Home of the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, and all that fun stuff you saw in National Treasure with Nicolas Cage. This was actually my second time in Philly; the first time when I was a student intern in Washington, D.C. during my last summer with UC Davis. I only spent a day in Philly last time I was here, so I rather enjoyed having having a full week in the Birthplace of Democracy.

Was the trip worth it? For sure! I would definitely recommend a whole week in Philadelphia, and there’s something for everyone. The food was fantastic, and there’s a lot of fun sights to see (both historical and just cool things!).

All About Philly!

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Weather

I think I know why East Coasters are always described as a little grumpier than West Coasters: it’s the weather. Summers on the East Coast are TERRIBLY hot and humid, and I really don’t know how anyone stands it. Philadelphia is no exception to this, and I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of air conditioning I got.

I will say this–if you’re traveling here in the summer, please please PLEASE stay hydrated. It’s easy to get sick from heat stroke if you’re not careful. I’m pretty sure at one point in my stay here, I either was suffering from heat stroke or really really close to it. You can read about the details of my suffering here. It gets really hot, and if you’re not careful, you might pass out. Listen to your body and stop when needed and hydrate. Always carry around that water bottle!

Where I Stayed

I rented a room with Airbnb here as well, and it was a fantastic experience with two very warm and inviting hosts. I stayed in the Fishtown neighborhood, which is a fantastic place to check out. It’s a lovely area close to great eateries, and if you’re into coffee, La Colombe is in this neighborhood. I’ll talk more about Fishtown in the neighborhood section below. New to Airbnb? Use this link here to get some free credits to get you started, and check out my tips on how to select a good Airbnb.

Transportation

Arrival and Departure

Most of the cities I traveled to during my East Coast Adventures were reached via Megabus, and Philly was no exception. My first time to Philly was by Megabus too! Megabus here is pretty straightforward and simple: on-time, inexpensive, and in a decent spot. You’ll be stopping at 30th Street Station. Do note that arrival and departure stops are different here. If you arrive here, the place you line up to leave Philly is different, so don’t return to the same spot. If you’re departing from here, you’ll generally see a long line of people waiting, but here are directions per Megabus:

The Megabus stop in Philadelphia is located at the 30th St. Station. The 30th St. Station stop is located on the NORTH side of John F. Kennedy Boulevard, about 200 yards west of North 30th Street and the west entrance to the 30th Street Station. There is an additional stop for the New York service only at Independence Hall, which is located on the south side of Market Street, just west of the intersection of Market Street and North 6th Street.

Getting Around the City

Available Methods of Transportation:
(*main method I used)

  • Bike*
  • Bus (I didn’t use this)
  • Lyft (ride sharing)

The Airbnb here actually was the one that gave me the idea that I should bike around as a method of transportation. Philly is nice and flat, and there is a bike share program here so if you’re so inclined, I would highly recommend biking. Indego is Philly’s bike sharing program, and it looks like it’s very similar to Pittsburgh’s program. I’d recommend the $15/month pass if you plan on staying more than 2-3 days since it seems like the best deal. As far as I know, there’s no minimum on how many months you have to buy, so pretty simple there! I’d recommend reading more about the pricing structure here. Do note that the pass gets mailed to you so make sure you plan in advance if you want to do this.

I really enjoyed biking in Philly because I found that I got to see everything without having to deal with traffic, and it was very convenient because I got to be on my own schedule. I also enjoyed the exercise (despite the killer heat) because I definitely ate A LOT here.

I didn’t take the bus here, so I can’t say. I do know that their public transportation system is called SEPTA, and I do remember not liking it much when I took it when I was here in Philly for the first time. It’s not that it’s bad per se; my roommate Jessica and I just thought one station looked terrifying so that left a bad impression on us haha.

Ride sharing with Lyft here was like any other city, really. People were really nice 🙂 I feel like Lyft tends to attract happy, friendly drivers, so I had a good experience here too. If you want to check it out and get some free credits, click here!

Sights and Attractions

Historical sites in Center City

WHEW this place has a lot of fun stuff going on! Of course, you have your typical American history sites like the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, and the various centers like National Constitution Center that focus on American history education. Most of that stuff is free to attend but you do need tickets to get in (for crowd control purposes). If you want to live out your dream of being just like Nicolas Cage, make sure you head over to the Independence Visitor Center. This is where you get tickets to Independence Hall (can’t get in without them!). If you’re a nerd and still into National Parks stamp books like me and my sister, this is where you can get all your NPS stamps. There are a LOT of them here, so knock yourself out.

Just a word of caution for all my stamp collector friends–while all the stamps are here, not all the attractions are here. For instance, the Benjamin Franklin National Memorial is not super close by, so feel free to stamp but do realize that it’s not right next to there. Also! Liberty Bell stamp is NOT in the Independence Visitor Center. Why? I have NO idea. It’s in the Liberty Bell Center.

Reading Terminal Market

Reading Terminal Market is one of the coolest places close by to all the American history stuff. Once you’re done checking out the Liberty Bell and such, stop by here for lunch. This indoor marketplace is bustling with people buying produce and meats/seafood, as well as people having meals and snacks. I love public markets, and Reading Terminal Market has definitely made it up there as one of my top 3 favorites. I’ll talk about this more in the Eateries section, but if you only can eat a couple things here, make it DeNic’s roast pork sandwich and Beiler donuts.

Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, PA

Spruce Street Harbor Park

It was a close race, but Spruce Street Harbor Park won over my heart when it comes to the coolest thing to see in Philly. I love outdoor-type events like this, and even though I was by myself, I found this to be a really fun, relaxing event. Basically, Spruce Street Harbor Park is a summertime event out on the waterfront where you can grab a drink and some food and just hang out in fancy lawn chairs and hammocks. I regret not bringing a book, really. If anything, this place is incredibly beautiful, especially at night time when the whole place is lit up in hanging lights.

If you do go here, go early because those hammocks are HARD to get. This is a pretty popular hangout spot during summer time, so those hammocks will pretty much always have people occupying them. I would recommend getting dinner before coming here, then just buying snacks. Things here are (obviously) a little pricier, so you’ll end up spending a bunch if you’re intending to get drinks and a meal here.

Eastern State Penitentiary

This prison is one of the coolest and creepiest place I have ever visited. If you’re into scary movies at all, this would be the epitome of all of those horror movie-type abandoned (and haunted?!) prisons. Even there is $15 entrance fee, I highly recommend a visit here because I think it’s totally worth the ticket price. I believe there is a guide-led tour, but if you don’t make it to one of those, the audio self-guided tour is just as good, in my opinion. The audio tour is voiced by Steve Buscemi and a handful of other actors, and I found it to be pretty informative. I listened to what I wanted and skipped over whatever I didn’t feel like listening to. The history about how this prison started and what became of it is incredibly interesting, so definitely add this on your list of places to visit. If you want to get a better idea of what you see and learn, you can read about my experience here.

Philadelphia Museum of Art

Whether you like art or you just want to mimic Rocky, you know this place is an iconic piece of Philly. Run up the steps like Rocky here, and if you’re so inclined, there is a Rocky statue right by the bottom of the steps that you can take a photo with. People there are all being touristy, so if you don’t have a selfie stick, ask one of the nice people to snap a photo for you! As for the museum itself, I would say this is one of the cooler art museums that are completely worth visiting, even if you’re not an art person. My favorite exhibits include the more “interactive” ones where you can walk through a Japanese garden and a Roman cloister. Also, if you need another touristy photo, the LOVE sculpture by Robert Indiana sits out in front of the museum.

Pro-tip: Every first Sunday of the month (10AM-5PM) and every Wednesday (5PM-8:45PM) is Pay What You Wish days. It’s usually $20 to get into the museum but this is a good option if you’re on a budget.

Outdoor Movies (during summer)

Like a lot of cities, Philly does outdoor movie screenings during the summer. I happened to stumble across the one in The Oval and stayed to laugh hysterically at a screening of Pitch Perfect with random strangers while munching on some tacos. I’m not sure how the other screenings are, but I particularly liked the screening at The Oval because there’s a lot of fun food trucks there. It was really nice to just sit and relax on the grass while snacking on various food truck offerings. Also, The Oval is right across the street from the Philadelphia MoA, so that makes for a beautiful backdrop.

Notable Neighborhoods

Old City

Old City in Center City is an obvious one! With all the historical sites, this definitely is a must-see if you’re in Philadelphia. You can start your day here and just walk around to see a lot of historical sites all nestled in a couple blocks’ radius.

Fishtown

From what I’ve heard, this is the new up and coming spot in Philadelphia. If I had to describe it with one word, I would probably call it “hipster”, and I don’t mean that in a negative way! Fishtown just reminds me a lot of home in San Francisco with the coffee shops and eateries in this area. It’s more of the stylish decor that makes me describe it this way haha. The main hub of La Colombe Coffee is here, and it’s a gorgeous warehouse-esque space with the old brick, industrial-type look. There’s a handful of cool eateries here that are “foodie-worthy”, including a place that boils their bagels in beer.

Chinatown

A couple blocks from Old City, Philly’s Chinatown is definitely a good sizable area that encompasses not just Chinese establishments–you got a decent mix of Vietnamese stuff here too. If you’re missing some Asian food along your trip, this is a good place to get it. Filled with Chinese bakeries, dim sum spots, and pho restaurants, Philly Chinatown’s got all your Asian food needs covered. I personally like going to the little bakeries and getting pastries to eat as snacks throughout the day.

Eateries

Andy’s Fried Chicken

Oh myyyyyy, you guys. This place is DELICIOUS. This isn’t a sit-down restaurant; it’s more of a grab-and-go, but that’s probably for the better. I don’t know if I’d want to have anyone see me get all the hot sauce all over my face while devouring fried chicken. I got a half order of sweet chili flavor, which is the most popular flavor.

DeNic’s Roast Pork & Beef

I don’t care that the Yelp reviews right now aren’t great; this is by far one of the best sandwiches I’ve ever eaten. The sandwich to get is roast pork with provolone, roasted hot peppers (not sweet), and broccoli rabe (greens). Yes, all three things. I don’t care most people only get two. I got all three, and it was delicious. If you just want to pick two, I’d go provolone and greens. The peppers weren’t absolutely necessary, but they were pretty delicious with the sandwich. DeNic’s gets pretty crowded during lunch so don’t go too late! If you plan to eat there, just find a seat at the counter and someone will come help you. If you want a sandwich to-go, stand in the line. If you want to sit but the counter is full, just get it to-go and find a seat somewhere else in the market!

La Colombe Coffee

There are technically a couple of shops around Philly, but I visited the flagship store in Fishtown. Great place to have some coffee and relax, but also a delicious place to have breakfast! I got their biscuits and gravy dish, which was a little greasy and heavy but I still enjoyed it. They also have pastries, breads, and other dishes throughout the day, so any time is great time to check out this place and have a bite to eat with a bit of caffeine.

Beiler’s Doughnuts

Doughnuts! Light, fluffy donuts are made fresh and are absolutely delicious. Found in Reading Terminal Market, you’ll find that the lines here can get pretty long, but they’re pretty fast so the wait isn’t bad. Also, you can watch them roll out the dough, fill, and frost the donuts that go in that filled display case.

Center City District Sips

This isn’t one specific restaurant; this is more of a Restaurant Week type deal, except with happy hours. I believe this is just a summer thing, so if you’re going to Philly during the summer months, take advantage of this great deal. Every Wednesday during the summer months, Center City Districts Sips offers discounted drinks and appetizers during the evenings at participating restaurants. Since I was only here for a week, I only go to try one restaurant, but 1 inexpensive happy hour is better than none, right?! Check out this link here to see if this event is happening while you’re in town.

Federal Donuts

Whether you’re a donut person or not, you gotta try Federal Donuts, specifically the freshly made sugar donuts. Hot and freshly made to order, Federal Donuts’ “Hot and Fresh” donuts are light and fluffy, with the perfect amount of sweetness. If you’re feeling a little fancier, you can get one of their “Fancy” donuts. The flavors rotate every so often, but whatever week it is, the flavors are always unique and creative. A few flavor I got were Guava Poppy, Butter Pecan, and Strawberry Cheesecake–they were all delicious!

But that’s not all! Federal Donuts is also a great place to get fried chicken. Say whaaaaat? That’s right. Fried chicken. They also serve Korean-style fried chicken here along with donuts. I didn’t have the regular fried chicken (I was too full from trying everything else), but I did have the fried chicken sandwich, which was pretty delicious. It’s a good size–not too big and not too small. A crispy piece of fried boneless chicken breast coated in buttermilk ranch seasoning is topped with American cheese, a dill pickle slice, and Sriracha, all between a soft potato roll. So good!

There are several locations around Philly, so you really have no excuse not to go.

John’s Water Ice

Water ice…? How does that make any sense, you ask? Don’t question it. Philadelphians are onto something here. When it’s a million degrees outside, go get yourself a water ice to cool down. It’s essentially sorbet, but “water ice” is specifically a Philadelphia thing. If you’ve had Italian ice, it’s that. Multiple people recommended this to me, and my judo partner at Philadelphia Judo Club suggested that I try this specific place after practice, so I did! This icy treat comes in several different fruity flavors, but I recommend the lemon for a sweet but slightly tart and refreshing taste.

Philly Style Bagels

Bagels boiled in beer? I like bagel. I like beer. Obviously, it then became a no-brainer that I had to try this place. So does beer make a difference in flavor? Honestly, I didn’t taste one, but I will say these bagels are delicious! I got a lox sandwich on an everything bagel that was really tasty. If you’re used to bigger bagels, be warned that these bagels are not big. I found it to be filling, but these bagels are smaller (and significantly flatter) than your typical NY-style bagels.

Sonny’s Famous Cheesesteaks

It’s Philly, so I had to mention cheesesteaks at some point, right? Disclaimer: I only went to one cheesesteak place because I have limited stomach space. This was the cheesesteak place, and it did not disappoint!

I got a regular cheesesteak steak, fries, and a drink. I was worried that getting cheese fries would be overkill on the cheese, but I regret not getting the cheese fries. Don’t make the same mistake I did! There are a lot of cheesesteak places here in Philly (check out this list created by Visit Philly) and of course there are the two famous rivals–Pat’s and Geno’s. If you’re just looking for a cheesesteak though, I think any of those other 8 on that list would be equally as delicious (and much less crowded!).

Little Pop Shop

I’ve actually never been to the physical brick and mortar location, but I did see them at The Oval in their little ice cream truck! They have pretty cool flavors, and their popsicles are a rather refreshing treat during the summer. I got the strawberry rhubarb at The Oval, but there were a handful of other flavors I wanted to try, including Vietnamese Iced Coffee and Raspberry Lime. If you see them around in their truck or happen to be by one of their store locations, I’d recommend checking them out!

The Franklin Fountain

I love old-fashioned stores and restaurants, so The Franklin Fountain was the perfect place for dessert for me! This adorable little ice cream parlor is a popular dessert place in Old City (that’s actually right next to Sonny’s Cheesesteaks) and is bustling late into the evening. They offer various forms of ice cream (cups, cones, sundaes, etc) but they also have soda if you’re not feeling like any dairy. Super cute and a good place to get ice cream then walk over to Penn’s Landing for a nice leisurely stroll.